Interview with Robert Nola – Member and Honorary Associate of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.) (NZARH)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Robert Nola is a Member and Honorary Associate of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.) (NZARH). Here we talk about his life, views, and work.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Professor Robert Nola: My father was a Dalmatian immigrant to New Zealand from Croatia in the late 1920s (but he was called ‘Austrian’). There is a quite large community of Dalmatians in New Zealand.

Like most of them he was a Catholic but religion sat rather lightly on him. This background was an important influence in my youth. My mother was New Zealand born but of Portuguese, Welsh and Scottish background; however none of this was a strong cultural influence.

Not being a Catholic she had to become one when marrying my father – in the long run she never really did. Instead she struck out on her own path to religion becoming a spiritualist later in life. So there was not, as whole, a unified commitment to any particular religion in my family.

Since there was a state school directly opposite where we lived I went to that instead of a more distant catholic school. So luckily I escaped a catholic school education.

But I did attend the central cathedral mass for Dalmatians at 10 o’clock on Sundays. For my father, that was more of a social get-together for Dalmatians than a religious happening.

Being before Vatican II, the Mass was in both Latin and Croatian – something which was rather a marvel for a boy growing up in New Zealand in the 1940s and 1950s.

In so far as I have a religious background, it was Catholic rather than anything else. I remember asking a priest ‘What is a protestant?” In an Irish accent which still rings in my ears but which I cannot imitate he replied “Robert, all Protestants are going to hell!’.

That became a longstanding religious belief of mine and one of the last I abandoned (well, I still believe it a bit!). It has always seemed to me that the Catholics had a more well worked out worldview than Protestants.

But to an atheist, both are equally mad. The encounter with the priest was my first exposure to the sectarianism which has blighted religion.

When young I was most impressed by the Eucharist in which the body and the blood of Christ were up there on the altar – and then presented to us. I thought that was as close as we could get to God.

But later I came to believe that all this was rubbish, such was the influence on me of a central doctrine of Catholic Christianity. This is a good example of how a ludicrous religious dogma can be built up out of supposed events in the life of (a supposed) Christ.

Later I discovered in the local Library Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. From that point on I never looked back. At last I had some good reasons for rejecting religion and being an atheist.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Nola: In many ways reading Russell was influential. I went to university and studied mathematics and philosophy. I earned a PhD in philosophy at the Australian National University and then returned to an academic position at my old university in Auckland.

I recently retired as a full professor after teaching for 47 years. My area of research was philosophy of science (with dollops of metaphysics and epistemology).

For a long time I did not care about religion, but I did cover many topics which had a bearing on it both positively and negatively. For example I taught a course in Philosophy of Atheism.

Jacobsen: As a Member and Honorary Association of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.) (NZARH) how did you earn the latter position? What tasks and responsibilities come with the latter position?

Nola: Though initially I did not take a very active role in the NZARH, I did attend meetings over the years and gave talks in Rationalist House, a building which is close to the University and is owned by NZARH as its headquarters.

I suppose for those reasons I was made an Honorary Associate. This is a means of giving the Association a more public profile by drawing on public figures.

Much more prominent are Associates such as Richard Dawkins along with two previous Auckland mayors who had been public atheists. Luckily no special tasks befall an Honorary Associate – apart from trying to publicly represent the causes of atheism, rationalism and humanism.

Once elected I thought I should try to fulfil this role given the higher public profile Christianity had achieved even though it is in decline – and other religions as well.

Social and political issues surrounding blasphemy, apostasy, euthanasia, abortion, religious education in schools and issues surrounding religious refugees and the like are still with us – not to mention the doctrinal absurdities of all religions. 

Jacobsen: What is the perspective of the membership about the overall operations of the association?

Nola: There is no one perspective. Members have come to NZARH as atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and the like. Some are also renegades from religion.

So there is a plurality of perspectives; but there can be unity of purpose. There is an annual AGM which elects a Council which meets once a month. If there is an issue here, it is how the Council communicates back to the membership NZARH and its various branches.

But in general the Council has been able form policies which the general membership of NZARH endorses.

For example, there is the national organisation SEN, Secular Education Network, which was formed to advocate the repeal of NZ laws concerning religious instruction and observance in schools.

Yes, this is still part of NZ law governing primary school education. SEN has been strongly supported by NZARH in funding its case before the courts (still ongoing).

Importantly the NZARH publishes quarterly a 24 page journal called The Open Society (now in its 92nd volume). It is run by an editorial committee. It generally contains a number of articles on a wide range of issues.

Recently there has been an attempt to increase the Maori perspective on religion hoping to show that there are such people as Maori atheists who are not part of the great wash of supposed Maori spiritualism and Christianity!

Jacobsen: In terms of those functions and social and communal activities of the association, what are important ones for community building amongst and between the various rationalist and humanist communities in New Zealand?

Nola: The NZARH is centred in Auckland and has at least 5 branches in the North Island. There is also the NZ Humanist Society (NZH) centred in Wellington with its branches. And there are various Sceptics societies.

In 2018 NZARH and NZH pooled resources to host the International Humanists Conference in NZ during August. This was successful and shows how the various organisations in NZ can come together for a united purpose despite their separate identities.  

Jacobsen: How can the association replicate other associations’ or organizations’ activities to better build community solidarity and increase membership, to increase both the numbers in the community and the strength of the existing one?

Nola: This is a difficult question for which I do not have a complete answer. But some background. Recent censuses have showed a decrease in belief in religion, especially Christianity, with the growth of non-believers. 

In the 2013 census, 48.9% of NZers claimed some Christian affiliation. However of European NZers 46.9% said they had no religion; and surprisingly 46.3% Maori said they had no religion.

We are awaiting the result of a 2018 census hoping it will show that the percentage of non-believers has surpassed the percentage of Christian believers.

But a 2018 report, Faith and Belief in NZ, prepared by religious organisations has already shown this. They say that more than half of NZers (55%) do not identify with any main religion.

One in five have spiritual beliefs (20%) whilst more than one in three (35%) do not identify with any religion or spiritual belief. A third of NZers (33%) identify with Christianity (either Protestant or Catholic), whilst another 6% identify with other major religions.

These results show that New Zealand is a largely secular nation and increasingly so. This is under-recognised.

 Now the interview question concerns increasing membership. Can we say that with the decline in religious belief and growing secularization in NZ there has been a corresponding increase in membership of NZARH?

Though I do not have exact figures the answer to this would appear to be ‘No”! This is an issue for NZARH to address.

Jacobsen: What are the main reasons for members leaving the community if, indeed, they do leave it?

Nola: They get too old to attend or pay subscriptions, or unfortunately die. Some find us no longer ‘relevant’, as they say. NZARH keeps track of the membership but there are no details of which I am aware concerning overall variation in membership and the reasons for that.

Jacobsen: For those who are questioning their faith and leaning more towards scientific skepticism as a way of thinking and humanism as a life stance, what would you recommend for them in terms of coming into the rationalist and humanist community and safely leaving the, usually, fundamentalist religious ones?

Nola: I would say that they should engage with the best of atheist and humanist literature. In its building NZARH has a magnificent library. But it is unfortunately underused.

It could become a centre for an appropriately organised instruction in atheism, humanism, rationalism, and the like. We should work on establishing such reading and research groups.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Nola: At the moment, most of what members do is voluntary. This includes being a member of the Council or a member of the editorial board for the journal, writing for the journal, etc.

I cannot see how this could change. Though we have a membership of over 400 people, only a few at any one time are active. So if anyone shows an interest in an issue they are immediately snapped up to do a job of work for NZARH.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Nola: Most of the questions concern organisational matters. And that can be appropriate. But not addressed are issues to do with the kind of doctrines an anti-religious group should support.

In the name ‘NZARH’ the ‘R’ stands for rationalism and the ‘H’ stands for humanism.  First, a concerted effort ought to be made in addressing what R and H stand for. This is not well-understood and lip-service is often paid to rationalism and humanism.

It is not enough to simply repeat the phrase “evidence based belief” as an account of rationalism. Second, in the academic world there has developed over the last quarter century a number of investigations into religion from the point of the theory of evolution and cognitive psychology.

These offer the best approach to understanding why humans have developed religious beliefs. But they need to be separated from the academic contexts in which they have been developed and made more accessible to a general audience.

Third, there is a perennial dispute over the credentials of religion versus science. Science is generally under attack around the world and that is not acceptable.

A good book on this conflict is Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact; there are many themes in this worth studying and developing.  So there is work to be done not only on the organisational and political fronts but also the intellectual front as well.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Nola.

Nola: Thank you for the questions and I hope that this initial encounter will lead to more exchanges between Canadian and New Zealand atheists.

For example Canada is a leader in changes to its euthanasia laws while NZ is still mired in parliamentary reviews and debates in which the Courts can play no role.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Benjamin DeYoung on Unsplash

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